Col. Lansana Conte, the president of Guinea, has foiled a coup atempt led by his former prime minister, Col. Diarra Traore. He is considering whether to execute Traore and his coconspirators. "If anyone wants to intercede on their behalf in the name of human rights," he is reported to have said, "he had better do it today, because tomorrow may be too late."

Considering President Conte's record, I do not interpret this as an intent to dismiss the expected pleas for clemency. On the contrary, in the face of what must be considerable internal pressure to act tough, he seems to be looking over his shoulder and inviting international public opinion to have its say.

He must be told he must not kill them.

Fifteen months ago, Conte led a successful coup d',etat just a few days after President Sekou Toure's death. Conte's government was soon to stand in surprisingly sharp contrast to that of his predecessor. Sekou Toure ruled for 26 years with an iron fist, ruthlessly purging his own ranks and suppressing dissent. He claimed to have defeated 16 plots during his rule and in the wake of each (most invented, some real) there were massive arrests, torture and executions, often by the infamous "black diet" method: total deprivation of food and drink until death.

Last October in Guinea, I heard countless testimonies of how the families of the political prisoners would be evicted from their homes, their goods confiscated and their children singled out at school for contempt. Sekou Toure's Malinke tribe benefited the most from his rule, to the detriment of the Soussou and even more to that of the Pheul, Guinea's other main ethnic groups. Guinea became a self-enclosed country, poor and backward, despite its vast natural resources.

When Conte came to power he promised no more blooshed. He put in prison some 60 people -- former ministers, some rebel soldiers, Sekou Toure's closest relatives. He personally gave instructions for their humane treatment and promised that, if tried, they would receive a fair trial.

Despite pressure to purge the administration's ranks, he refused to do so, insisting on the need for reconciliation and for stopping the vicious cycle of vengeance and ethnic hatred. He invited criticism from within the country and from abroad, and he promised to advance toward an open society.

Transition from dictatorship to a more open society and from generalized repression to respect for human rights is never easy, particularly if the despotic rule has lasted for nearly three decades. Conte has chosen so far to base his rule on moderation and fairness. His course is now being put to an acute test. He must stay the course and realize that, while justice can and must be done, summary trials or executions are inherently wrong -- a false show of strength.